Life Writing "from Below" in Europe

Unlikely Documents? Exploring Finnish Nineteenth-Century Life Writing From Below


  • Anna Kuismin University of Helsinki



life writing from below, literacy, materiality of writing, nineteenthcentury Finland


The expression unlikely documents in the title of this article is coined by Marlene Kadar and Jeanne Perreault. It refers to the appearance of auto/biography in unexpected places, texts that “bespeak either an extended or a limited story about a person’s life.” The article focuses on nineteenth-century Finnish life writing from below, texts produced by rural people with no formal education. The cases analysed include a notebook of hymns by a mistress of a farm, a chronicle penned by a modest country tailor, wooden boards inscribed by a saddle maker living on poor relief and textiles produced by a weaver woman. Seen in their contexts, these extraordinary texts prove to be understandable, even plausible: people who were not well-versed in literary genres and styles, had to make their choices from resources that were available there and then. In spite of the limited repertoire of models, the authors were able to express themselves and bring their subjectivity to the fore, in one way or another. Their texts can also be seen as tools of empowerment and vehicles of creativity for people in marginal positions at the time when writing did not belong to the life of the great majority.

Author Biography

Anna Kuismin, University of Helsinki

Anna Kuismin is a former Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, director of the Literary Archives of the Finnish Literature Society and Senior Researcher at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. She has published widely on life writing from below and coordinated the Nordic research project Reading and writing from below: Toward a new social history of literacy in the Nordic sphere during the long 19th century (2011–2014). She was PI of the Academy of Finland funded research project Exploring Social Boundaries from Below: Class, Ideology and Writing Practices in Nineteenth Century Finland in 2011–2015.





Life Writing "from Below" in Europe